Lavender: Relax … Stop and Smell the Flowers
By Susan Perry, NRV Master Gardener
Ask yourself, “Is there anything better than lavender?” Imagine the scent, the color … simply perfection. Lavender is romantic, it looks and smells beautiful, and it’s healing. Lavender is a good choice for perennial gardens in Virginia, and under the right conditions, can be quite easy to grow. And we have a fabulous local grower nearby who I recently had the opportunity to visit. You can learn a lot about lavender by visiting Mystic River Lavender in Riner. A handful of NRV Master Gardeners recently visited and although I didn’t count, owners Janice and Keith Mileski easily have more than 1000 plants growing there.
Besides producing beautiful, fragrant flowers, lavender can be dried in bunches or used to make various products by extracting essential oils or using dried blossoms. Annual maintenance of established lavender is average and lavender has few pest or disease problems. An added benefit for Janice is that deer seem uninterested in lavender. Once established, lavender is extremely drought tolerant. According to Janice, she only waters lavender plants during the first year, and then sparingly.
Lavender flourishes in Mediterranean climates, so any attempts to grow lavender in SW Virginia should attempt to replicate that climate. When selecting a location, think “Mediterranean climate” because that is where the lavender plant first came from. Other places lavender grows well are Colorado, Texas, the Pacific NW, and New Mexico. Lavender thrives in hot, sunny locations in a variety of soils, as long as they are well drained. You can amend clay soils by creating a mounded 6” deep layer of “dirty rock”. Avoid using sand or gravel as an amendment because they can actually cause drainage problems.
Two kinds of lavender that are grown at Mystic River Lavender are lavandula angustifolia (commonly known as English lavender) and lavandula x intermedia (known as lavandin), a hybrid of lavandula angustifolia and lavandula latifolia. Lavandins are usually larger plants that bloom only once in the late summer. Different cultivars of English lavender and lavandins produce flowers ranging from light blue to dark purple, as well as pink and white. If you visit Mystic River Lavender, you will see multiple varieties of blue/purple lavender, along with several varieties of white lavender.
Choose English lavender plants that have been propagated from cuttings, rather than from seed, in order to insure consistent size and color, bloom time, and other characteristics. Typically, English lavender cultivars range from 12 – 30” tall and 18 – 24” wide. Since lavandins are sterile, they can only be propagated from cuttings and are often much taller than English lavender. They are usually 18 – 36” tall and 24 – 36” side. When planting lavender, space plants far enough apart to allow good air circulation, based on the mature size of the cultivar.
When growing lavender plants in SW Virginia, be sure to use stone mulch – wood mulch will cause the plants to remain too moist to survive. Just be sure to keep mulch away from the crown of the plant. Too much moisture will result in plant decline and may make the plant succumb to soil disease or root rot.
The best time to harvest lavender is between 9am – noon (early morning after the dew has dried), once a few of the flower buds have opened. For drying, try to cut stems as long as possible, bundling 50 – 75 stems with rubber bands so that you can hang them to dry in a cool, dark place with good airflow. Janice and Keith dry their lavender in their garage, with the windows covered, and fans and a de-humidifier running. Larger bundles may mold, so you can always carefully combine smaller dried bundles to make one larger dried bundle. Or, simply enjoy a bouquet of fresh lavender.
After your primary harvest, there may be a second, smaller late summer flowering in some varieties. A second harvest can be combined with annual pruning, once plants are established. Removing any flowers that occur during this time will help insure more prolific flowering next year. Because lavender flowers on new growth, Janice prefers pruning at the end of August or early September. She recommends pruning approximately one third of the top of the plant, never below 1” above old wood. This will stimulate growth, keep the plant from becoming too open and woody, and will help insure more prolific flowering next year.
With a little effort, in a few years you’ll be able to enjoy the scent of your own, home-grown lavender.